Imagine that an American intelligence agency organizes an “exercise,” as one occasionally does, on how to manage an unwanted but inescapable Washington role in a Chinese leadership struggle. Throw in the following scene-setting facts:
With the Chinese Communist Party confronting a decisive leadership transition, a provincial police chief takes refuge in a U.S. consulate and spills the beans on a corruption and murder story swirling around Bo Xilai, whose populist, Maoist campaign threatens the establishment.
Just a week before the visit to Washington of Vice-President Xi Jianping, who is in line to become paramount leader this autumn, President Obama takes sides. Although Bo’s forces are circling the consulate, the U.S. releases the police chief to Beijing’s leaders.
With that crisis solved and Chinese leaders indebted to Obama, a blind human rights activist dramatically escapes house arrest and takes refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. With Secretary Hillary Clinton arriving for a high-level Sino-U.S. summit, both sides enter crisis management mode.
It’s no wonder that the intellectual salons of Washington have grown a bit bored with the ongoing U.S. election campaign and have shifted their interest instead to Chinese domestic politics. The reasons are obvious: The details are juicier, the drama is more immediate and the historic stakes are considerably more significant.
For all their bitter differences, President Obama and Governor Romney share one overwhelming challenge. Whoever is elected will face the growing reality that the greatest risk to global stability over the next 20 years may be the nature of America itself.
Nothing – not Iranian or North Korean nuclear weapons, not violent extremists or Mideast instability, not climate change or economic imbalances – will shape the world as profoundly as the ability of the United States to remain an effective and confident world player advocating its traditional global purpose of individual rights and open societies.
Berlin and Havana
A year after President John F. Kennedy acquiesced to the communist construction of the Berlin Wall, two dramas occurring five thousand miles apart illustrated the high cost of one of the worst inaugural year performances of any modern president.
The first unfolded under the spotlight of a Berlin summer sun, when eighteen-year-old bricklayer Peter Fechter and a friend began their sprint to toward freedom across the so-called death strip, the no-man’s land that lay before the Wall. Two bullets pierced Fechter’s back and stomach as he watched his more agile friend leap to freedom over strands of barbed wire that adorned the barrier’s crown. Fechter collapsed backwards in a quivering heap at the base of the wall, where he bled through multiple wounds while U.S. soldiers watched helplessly, obeying orders not to assist any escapees until they had left East Berlin territory.
Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin
Friday, October 27, 1961
Undaunted by the damp, dangerous night, Berliners gathered on the narrow side streets opening up onto Checkpoint Charlie. The next morning’s newspapers would estimate their numbers at about five hundred, a considerable crowd considering that they might have been witnesses to the first shots of a thermonuclear war.
After six days of escalating tensions, American and Soviet tanks were facing off just a stone’s throw from one another – ten on each side, with roughly two dozen more in nearby reserve. Much has been written about the Cuban Missile Crisis that would come a year later, but the Berlin Crisis of 1961 was more decisive in shaping the Cold War – and was more perilous.
Palace of Congresses, Moscow
Tuesday, October 17, 1961
Nikita Khrushchev would celebrate his Berlin triumph at the 22nd Communist Party Congress in Moscow — and through it send the most powerful message imaginable that President John F. Kennedy had failed to create a more peaceful planet through his acquiescence to the construction of the Berlin Wall two months earlier.
Never had so many communist party leaders met in one place at the same time, nearly 5,000 in all from eighty communist and non-communist countries. For Khrushchev, the capacity crowd was intentional. He had entitled each party organization to send additional delegates to create the right theater for the message he wished to send.
Humboldt Harbor, East Berlin
Thursday, August 24, 1961
Günter Litfin, a twenty-four-year-old tailor whose boldest acts until that point had been performed with a needle and thread, summoned the courage to flee East Berlin eleven days after the communists had sealed the border.
Until August 13, Litfin had lived divided Berlin’s ideal life, taking maximum advantage of each side’s benefits as one of the city’s 50,000 Grenzgänger, or “border jumpers.” By day, he worked in West Berlin earning hard Westmark, which he exchanged on the black market at a five-to-one rate for East Germany money, or Ostmark.
Oval Office, The White House
Wednesday Morning, August 16, 1961
He considered the letter from Mayor Willy Brandt that had landed on his desk that morning, three days after the Berlin border closure, to be insulting and impertinent. Even given the gravity of Berlin’s crisis, it overstepped the sort of language any city mayor should use with the American president. With each line that he read, Kennedy grew more certain that the letter’s primary purpose was to serve Brandt’s campaign against West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer for national elections a month later.
Worse yet, Brandt had revealed the contents of the ostensibly confidential letter that day to a rally outside his city hall with more than 250,000 West Berliners, who had grown as angry at the Americans about their role in condoning the border closing operation as they were with the East Germans and their Soviet minders for conducting it. West Germany’s most-read newspaper, Bild-Zeitung, with its circulation of 3.7 million, had covered the entire top half of its front page with a headline that captured the public mood: THE EAST ACTS – AND THE WEST? THE WEST DOES NOTHING.
August 13, 1961
Among those closest to him, President John F. Kennedy did not hide his relief after East German forces, with the approval of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, sealed the Berlin border in the early morning hours of August 13 in an operation of stunning speed and German efficiency.
After all, in many respects Kennedy had written the script for how Khrushchev had executed the operation – staying strictly within the bounds of what the U.S. President had made clear he would accept. From the time of their meeting at the Vienna Summit two months earlier, Kennedy had been sending clear messages that he could live with a border closure in Berlin if the Soviet leader didn’t disrupt West Berlin access or freedom.
The White House, Washington, D.C.
Tuesday, July 25, 1961
In the late afternoon, President Kennedy retreated to the Lincoln Bedroom to read through the latest draft of a speech he would deliver live at ten o’clock that evening to a national television audience. It was rare for any president to use the Oval Office for such a purpose, and workmen had been there all day, laying cables and wires.
Kennedy knew how high the stakes had become. At home, he had to reverse a growing impression of foreign policy weakness, which made him politically vulnerable. After mishandling Cuba and Vienna, he had to convince Khrushchev that he was willing to defend West Berlin even while he left the door open for negotiations.
Friday, July 7, 1961
Henry Kissinger spent only a day or two each week in Washington working as a White House consultant, commuting from his post at Harvard University, but that had proved sufficient to put him at the center of the struggle to shape Kennedy’s thinking on Berlin.
At age 39, the ambitious professor would happily have worked full-time for the president: that, however, had been blocked by his former dean and now D.C. boss, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. Though Kissinger had mastered the art of flattering his superiors, Bundy was more immune to it than most. Along with the president, Bundy regarded Kissinger as brilliant also tiresome. Bundy imitated Kissinger’s long, German-accented discourses and the rolling of the president’s eyes that accompanied them.